Samurai movies, like westerns, do not need to be familiar genres. They can show a story of ethical challenges and human tragedy. “Harakiri,” one of the best samurai movies out there, is about an older wandering samurai who takes his time to create an unanswerable dilemma for the elder of a powerful clan.
In order to defeat the powerful leader, Miyamoto Nakadai plays strictly by the rules of Bushido Code and he lures him into a situation where sheer naked logic leads to his humiliation before his retainers.
Loyalty is not based on seniority or tenure anymore. Loyalty is top down, with corporations retaining loyal employees and letting people go when they’re no longer needed. Just look at the case of an unemployed samurai in Japan, who has pledged their service to their master. After the peace was settled, the ronin have no master and have to fend for themselves in Harakiri.
In Harakiri, In order to kill himself, a character named Tsugumo Hanshiro waits at the gate of the Lord’s mansion. There, he tries to convince the clan leader Saito Kayegu (Rentaro Mikuni) that he must kill himself for whatever meager reward their is for finishing off Lord Geishu.
In Japanese culture, the ritual act known as harakiri is done in which one does not use a different blade from the one that plunges into their stomach. For example, after stabbing into their midsection, a designated master swordsman stands by to decapitate the samurai with one powerful stroke.
Tsugumo is extremely ashamed about his current status. As soon as Saito speaks, Tsugumo stops and tells him that he should not proceed with his plan. He passionately chides Saito for designing a story in such a way to make the samurais desire death rather than life. He wonders whether the story was designed by someone who knew what true despair felt like.
Saito demands Tsugumo first use politeness. However, once he does so, Tsugumo proceeds to tell a story that will be heard by the retainers of the house and Saito.
“Harakiri” was released by Masaki Kobayashi in 1962, and is best known for the film “Kwaidan,” an anthology of ghost stories which was one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen. He also made the nine-hour epic, “The Human Condition,” which critiques how society creates violence and conflict, in order to create a state of mind that leads to World War II. And he made “Samurai Rebellion,” about a man who refuses to give his wife to his superior.
Kurosawa’s repeated theme is that fanatic adherence to codes of honor create a situation where humanist values are forbidden.
The use of Kamikaze pilots for suicide missions and the sacrifice of soldiers in hopeless charges under fire were seen by many samurai as a means to attain an honorable death.
An innovative, popular novelist of the 20th century, Yukio Mishima believed in strict codes and only resorted to violence when it was justified. After leading a failed coup that damaged his reputation and which cost him his life, Mishima was written about by an American filmmaker in “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985).
Kobayashi created the perfect mystery film by opening with a similar-to-“Rashomon.” This movie confronts viewer’s with four versions of the same story, yet its meaning depends entirely on whose perspective you take.
Despite his altruistic intentions, Saito, who believes that Motome’s story should not be exploited for money, or Tsugumo, who does not want to see the Iyi family disrespected by handing over the money for a bogus charity donation, are diametrically opposed.
What I want to convey is that the story told by Tsugumo is heartbreaking. He explains that Motome was not a man asking for a delay because he wanted to live, but because his honor humbled bureaucrats. He was an example of someone whose true honor is beyond their military value and makes them humble even in death.
It takes more courage to do the right thing in social situations, than the traditional. “Harakiri” reflects situational ethics. Knowing a man deeply helps you understand his actions, and vice versa.
The story Harakiri involves a feeling of ritual as Tsugumo is given the privilege of choosing three men to behead him. After being sent to fetch the chosen men, each time returning alone with news that the chosen man would not survive because he felt too ill.
Even though Tsugumo appears to be familiar with certain parts of the Iwai clan, he’s not surprised by their absence. They will eventually explain themselves by producing dramatic symbols of the lack of inner strength in the courtyard. This provides one of the great dramatic moments in all samurai films.
What’s also important is how Kobayashi’s life reflects Tsugumo’s ideals. He was a lifelong pacifist and refused to take the risk of becoming an officer.
The visual and story-telling elements in this black and white film, often working to amplify the gulf between Tsugumo and Saito, are both in line with the values of the film. The camera often takes the POV of the upper class captain Saito, looking down on Tsugumo, who is lowly with belongings.
Then the camera will take a reverse point of view of Tsugumo looking up to the man with the power. Angular shots incorporate the onlookers and impassive as they listen in their leader and the powerless samurai speak.
Then, during a sword play scene, using a hand held camera is used to suggest the breaking down of tarditional patterns. This would probably be enough to tear up any man even if they are made of stone. It will take a lot for them not to feel moved by Tsugumo’s story, but there has been so much rote training for these men to have such hearts.
The mysterious question mark will draw viewers before the film has even started. This is the symbol that represents the Iyi clan, their traditions and ancestors–an empty suit of armour. Ultimately, this symbol will be exposed as useless and wasted whenever we see how Saito’s ideas about economics are so detached from reality. We may compare this to debates about rigid economic theories nowadays, where people ignore the pain of others for their own benefit—something which is easy to do when a heated argument has been sparked by people on both sides.
Great movies from my collection include Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion,” Kurasawa’s “Rashomon” and Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.”